"Unity in struggle, and not in disempowerment!" Photo courtesy Jessica Mason

Unity without Uniformity

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Jessica Mason


At a rally against fascism in Moscow last autumn, a small crowd gathered within a square barricaded from the public by metal detectors and a contingent of police. Anarchist black, socialist red, and rainbow flags waved in the chill November wind. The flags looked brave, but I felt uneasy after some of us had been attacked on our way to the rally. A mob of young men all in black, faces covered with scarves and blue surgical masks, had burst into the metro station where we were meeting. Shouting slogans like “Glory to Russia!” and “Death to anti-fascists!” they beat up two activists and pushed a third onto the subway tracks. Luckily the latter was rescued before a train came, but the other two went to the hospital in ambulances.

The anarcho-feminists' banner: "Neither church, nor kitchen, nor state. The patriarchy into the dustbin of history!" Photo courtesy Jessica Mason

The anarcho-feminists’ banner: “Neither church, nor kitchen, nor state. The patriarchy into the dustbin of history!” Photo courtesy Jessica Mason

Responding to the attack, the first speakers united around the theme that most Russians were against that kind of aggressive nationalism and violence; they just needed to be convinced to come out publicly. The crowd clapped in agreement. Then “Sasha,” a leftist in a group known for supporting LGBT rights, got specific about who should be included in this anti-fascist movement:

If patriarchy is an essential part of nationalist dialogue, we should bring to our side representatives of the women’s movement, feminists. Just the same with the LGBT movement. If that is one of the main thrusts directing the right—they’re directed at gays, you know. We should cooperate with them, struggle together…

Several men in the crowd interrupted, booing and hissing. Almost as quickly, two or three voices shouted them down, saying “He’s right! It’s all right!” “Nadya,” one of the organizers of the rally, returned to the microphone after Sasha finished and challenged the audience, saying that she expected attendees of an anti-fascism rally to understand that there should be no division of people by sex or nationality. “And when my comrade reminds us of that and I see that kind of reaction, I honestly don’t understand what I’m doing here. I don’t understand. Do people really believe that among equals, some should be more equal?” she asked. She insisted on calling a prominent LGBT activist to speak next.

Inequalities within Inequalities

The efflorescence of mass protest around the globe in recent years might be said to originate in experiences of what James Ferguson, drawing on Julia Kristeva, calls abjection: a sense of being cast out by processes of modernization, development, and democratization which had promised rosy futures for all. Feelings of abjection take on a particular potency in post-Soviet Russia, where the collapse of state socialism’s modernization schemes was quickly followed by a seemingly failed democratization and market transition. The double failure—economic and political—hits particularly hard for young women and LGBT individuals who are faced with newly reactionary government policies, including restrictions on abortion and the recent criminalization of “homosexual propaganda” as well as homophobic and anti-feminist rhetoric from state officials and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Even within the political opposition, feminists and LGBT activists drawing attention to their particular abjections come into conflict with other activists’ desire to present a uniform front. Doing ethnographic research among left-leaning activists in Moscow during 2012–13, though, I found that this tension was not necessarily just a problem to be solved. For many of my interlocutors, insisting that their unequal status be acknowledged and addressed was a practice through which they came to recognize like-minded people—people they could work with. This isn’t just a matter of ensuring free and diverse expression at political rallies. Many women and LGBT activists, particularly vulnerable to repression and even violence, feel an imperative to know which of their fellow activists can be trusted.

"Unity in struggle, and not in disempowerment!" Photo courtesy Jessica Mason.

“Unity in struggle, and not in disempowerment!” Photo courtesy Jessica Mason.

It would seem that decades after the new social movements, rooted in struggles over identity and cultural issues, so clearly demonstrated that even movements for equality have their own internal divisions. In this vein, June Nash suggests that by now “the suppression of difference in the interest of promoting unity” is no longer a viable organizing strategy. In practice, though, would-be movement leaders continue to call for consensus, uniformity, and an emphasis on common goals in many places, as recent mass mobilizations from Occupy to the Egyptian revolution have shown.

Among mainstream opposition groups in Russia, self-proclaimed leaders like Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov have emphasized the importance of consolidating mass support against current President Vladimir Putin. Organizers of mass events, many of them middle- to upper-class Muscovites, worked hard to include speakers of all political views—pro-market liberals, old-line communists, right-wing nationalists—in the interest of building an apolitical citizens’ movement. They focused mainly on Putin’s abuses of power, election fraud, and government corruption. At the margins, though, many protesters were equally worried about the growing gap between rich and poor and continuing privatization of public services, while feminists and LGBT activists were disturbed by the opposition’s ready inclusion of conservative and far-right groups who were actively hostile to them.

Likewise within the left wing of street activists, conflicts repeatedly took shape in the intersection between the desire for uniformity and demands for representation. Many of the voices dominating public events reacted with indifference or even hostility when when anyone pointed out that the current unjust order affected some groups more than others. Those who insisted on highlighting inequalities were seen as undermining attempts to construct uniformity among the anti-Putin masses or to appeal to the general public, perceived as being traditionalist and homophobic. Minority groups drawing attention to themes of inequality were accused of simply stirring up trouble.

Finding Allies

But for those minorities, moments of conflict not only served to make their problems seen. How others reacted to conflicts could be used to measure how much progress minorities were making in gaining support within the broader movement, and to determine which other groups could be relied on for support. For example, activists I interviewed often referred to one of the early March of Millions marches in winter 2011 when a group of fellow protesters attacked the LGBT column. Nearby leftist and independent activists stepped up to defend them. For my interlocuters, this incident came to represent the concrete support LGBT activists found within some parts of the Russian left. The attack itself was threatening, and the regular occurrence of similar attacks prompts very real concerns among LGBT activists about their health and safety. Yet in this case the attack also had a productive outcome, helping LGBT activists to feel that some of their fellow activists could be relied on.

Schisms within groups could also be understood in positive terms. Early in 2013, a group of feminist/LGBT activists splintered off from a larger anarchist organization after repeated conflicts over internal homophobia and misogyny. They unfurled their new banner at a rally for secularism a few days later. “Misha,” a leftist, had commented to me repeatedly about his frustration with anarchists who were openly homophobic or considered women’s rights a bourgeois distraction. At the sight of the banner, he walked over to me to explain his excitement: “Now we have a group we might be able to work together with!” Their insistence on displaying contentious feminist and LGBT symbols, even to the point of group schism, made it clear to Misha that they could be real allies, and in later months their groups often cooperated.

Making Room for Difference

Even as it risks backlash, expressing dissatisfaction with inequality opens up new space for expressions of solidarity. Later that spring, the anarchofeminists helped publish a feminist zine. Several dozen of us gathered one cold March evening in the concrete hall of a former warehouse turned experimental art space to mark the release of the zine alongside a feminist issue of Volya, an opposition journal. The event quickly turned into a discussion of women’s unequal treatment within leftist groups. Women often felt ignored or expected to do behind-the-scenes work. Women who experience domestic violence—sometimes at the hands of activist partners—may face a community that supports the perpetrator and assumes women “ask for it.” Indeed, similar concerns came up in a few of my interviews with women activists who felt cast out of groups that supported their attackers. One of the goals of the zine had been to create a space in which women could share their personal experiences, part of the long feminist tradition of consciousness-raising.

But as the evening wound down, the (middle-aged, male) editor of the other journal complained about the feminists’ ungratefulness after such an event had been planned for them. That night on Facebook, he asked many of the feminists to apologize, prompting a long argument in comments across several of their pages. One activist, Vera Akulova, posted that she refused to apologize, describing the situation as indicative of ongoing problems between feminism and the left:

All in all, it seems to me a representative situation when a man who declares himself a feminist does a one-off project with women, and when afterwards this doesn’t make the women break out in applause, he rushes to blame those women, not hesitating to use the most absurd antifeminist myths (that I am for “the matriarchy”).

But this debate wasn’t only about the feminists’ reaction to the male editor. Larisa and others also made a point of thanking the zine’s creators and those who waded into the contentious comment sections to support their position. Thus she insisted on marking women’s problems as distinctive and important created space for like-minded activists to reveal themselves as allies and demonstrate solidarity.

Jessica Mason is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research focuses on conflicts and solidarity-building among young feminist, LGBT and leftist activists in Moscow.

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